Officials Occupy Meeting, Briefly

Occupy Pensacola’s sit-down with city officials was a breezy affair. A chilly exchange lasting but a few moments.

“What just happened here?” said Nicholas Alford, who’s been handling the Occupy’s press releases. “I have no idea what just happened here.”

Officials met with four Occupy representatives on the fourth floor of City Hall. The group has been camped out front on the lawn for more than two weeks.

“We’re going through the permitting process now,” Dave Flaherty, director of the city’s Department Parks and Recreation, began the meeting.

“I don’t think so, but we’ll get there,” replied Alistair McKenzie, Occupy Pensacola’s attorney.

“I know what I’m doing,” Flaherty said.

Occupy Pensacola was apparently under the impression that its meeting today with officials was to involve a broader discussion about the group’s future. City officials refused to venture beyond the permit issue.

“So, you’re not applying?” Flaherty pressed. “I’m going to call this meeting to a close, then call Mr. Reynolds and get further direction.”

During last week’s Pensacola City Council meeting, City Administrator Bill Reynolds suggested that the encampment’s fate would soon fall to the parks department and be subject to whatever rules applied to such events.

During today’s meeting, Kim Kaminski, the city’s special events coordinator, said that the original Occupy Pensacola event was not what it once was. The event began with a planning meeting, then set up camp Oct. 15 on Palafox St. before migrating to City Hall two weeks later; up until Nov. 11, the activities were sanctioned by the city.

“What has happened is that it has evolved,” Kaminski told the group.

Later, out at the Occupy camp, McKenzie said the city had recognized in past letters of no-objection—which have extended the stay without actually involving a new permit—that the group consisted of overnight campers.

“To say things have changed is disingenuous on the city’s party,” he said.

In a statement released after the meeting, city officials cited the event’s growth in size—there are now dozens of tents on the lawn—as well as public safety and costs concerns.

“This increase in population and construction has not only stressed the environment in which they currently reside and greatly increased public health concerns, but has also increased costs and potential liability for the city,” the statement read.

As Flaherty led city officials out of the conference room, McKenzie threw a theory out on the table.

“I assume that’s why this was set up this way in the first place,” he said, “to force things to a head.”

The Occupy contingent at the meeting—McKenzie, Alford, Gary Paull Jr. and Father Nathan Monk—view the encampment as a freedom-of-speech issue, and say it does not require a permit. They also argued that the permit would be cost prohibitive, thus linking their First Amendment-rights to financial wherewith-all.

Officials, meanwhile, maintain that a permit is necessary in order to have information on the event and be able to determine a responsible party for reasons such a insurance. A permit would also require Occupy to pay associated costs for its stay on the lawn, as well as provide a defined time frame. There is no guarantee that a permit would be granted.

Travis Peterson, spokesman for Mayor Ashton Hayward, said he didn’t know where things might go from here.

“I think it’s premature for me to comment on what action the Mayor may or may not take,” he said.

So, Occupy Pensacola waits and wonders. Across the county, officials have been clearing out Occupy camps, which sprang up in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, a financial-district campout that started Sept. 15 in New York City in an outcry against what it views as a corrupt economic and political structure. Earlier this week, police broke up the original Occupy in New York.

The four-man team from Occupy Pensacola that met with city officials are no more sure of the local encampment’s future than before their fourth-floor sit-down.

“No expectations,” McKenzie had said as the group prepared to go into the meeting.

But that wasn’t entirely true.  They must have had some expectations.They had all heard Mayor Hayward lay down a hardline earlier in the week during a radio interview.

“It’s back to square-one,” Paull had predicted.